Building capacity to help Africa trade better

New book looks at challenges and achievements of the WTO over past 20 years


New book looks at challenges and achievements of the WTO over past 20 years

New book looks at challenges and achievements of the WTO over past 20 years
Photo credit: WTO | Studio Casagrande

The WTO marked on Day 3 of the Public Forum the 20th anniversary of its founding with the launch of a new book looking back at its two decades of achievements, its setbacks, and the challenges the organization faces in adapting to a rapidly-changing global trading environment.

Director-General Roberto Azevêdo joined former WTO chief economist Patrick Low, former U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, former WTO Appellate Body member David Unterhalter, and former Deputy Director-General Harsha Singh at the book launch for a discussion on what the WTO got right, what it could have done better, and how it can remain central to the rules-based trading system.

When the WTO opened its doors on 1 January 1995, it represented more than a reform of the old GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) system. The WTO was seen as the key pillar of a new kind of global economic order – open, inclusive, cooperative – that was taking shape in the wake of the end of the Cold War. Countries that were largely closed to the world economy for almost half a century were turning to open markets and economic integration. If the GATT was the product of a divided world, the WTO offered the promise of a more unified one.

The speakers agreed that while the WTO has faced real challenges – disappointing progress in the long-running Doha Round is a lingering and high profile reminder – the organization has lived up to these expectations of its architects – and in some ways exceeded them.

“Seen through the lens of news stories about negotiating deadlocks, street protests, and trade conflicts, public perceptions of the WTO have often been less than positive – to say the least,” said DG Azevêdo. “But if we stand back and take a broader historical view of the WTO, and its growing role in the global economy, then the reality of what has been achieved looks very different.

“Thirty-three new members – a fifth of the WTO’s membership – have joined since 1995, including major economies like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia,” he noted. “Average MFN [most-favoured nation] tariffs have been cut in half since 1995... Just as importantly, the WTO has proven effective in sustaining and strengthening economic cooperation between countries – especially during times of crisis.”

Mr Unterhalter underlined the achievements of the WTO’s dispute settlement system, which has won considerable respect through its independence, its reason-based findings, and its prudence.  But he acknowledged some reforms were needed to ensure continued efficiency. 

Mr Singh said the WTO’s achievements include an expanded membership and an expanded agenda, but that the organization needs to keep evolving to meet challenges such as ensuring coherence with an increasing plethora of bilateral and regional trade deals.

Ms Schwab said the WTO has scored some notable recent achievements such as the Trade Facilitation Agreement in 2013 and last summer’s breakthrough on an expanded Information Technology Agreement. The biggest challenge facing the WTO, she said, is “transcending” the Doha stalemate and forging an updated set of trading rules on issues of relevance to international commerce.

DG Azevêdo agreed that the slow progress of the Doha Round is “something we have to face up to” but “in recent years, we have delivered some very important negotiated outcomes”.

“The Bali Package of 2013 was a huge breakthrough. The plan to expand the Information Technology Agreement which was agreed in July this year was also very important.

”These agreements had a systemic impact – reinforcing the WTO as a pillar of global economic governance. And they will also have a significant economic and developmental impact. So we should seek to build on them. And of course our ministerial conference in Nairobi is just two months away.

“I want us to get into the habit of delivering, making agreements, and pushing things forward,” he declared.

The DG’s full remarks at the Public Forum book launch are available here.


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